Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Iowa Anthem Caucus: Game 79 in Clinton

In Clinton, Iowa, for only the second time on the tour, Arby accompanied us to a game.  Like his first ballpark visit in Columbus, Arby’s appearance was necessitated by the mid-day game in a city between morning and night RV dockings.  This time, his mooring at dawn had been near Chicago and the evening’s destination and next game were in Davenport.  But unlike Arby’s earlier urban lot parking in Columbus where he had waited while I sang for the Clippers, he was able to get street parking adjacent to the ballpark in Clinton.  So there we rolled out the awning, turned on the air conditioner, and read and wrote for the two hours before the Alliant Energy Field opened.

Sandwiched between two transport corridors, Clinton’s Riverview Stadium—its original name—was constructed as a WPA project in 1937 and renovated sixty years later.  The left field wall adjoins the road atop the levee holding back the mighty Mississippi River, and the parking lot adjacent to the first base grandstands is an active rail line along which chugged freight trains about every 45 minutes.  While river traffic ferries grain south towards the port of New Orleans, rail cars haul imported goods north toward Minneapolis.  Although Clinton is the corporate home to Nestle-Purina and International Paper, its commercial district near the ballpark appears twisted and conflicted by these opposing currents, strangled to the point of economic suffocation.

Beyond the outfield fence, a riverboat churns up the Mississippi.
A few minutes after I had entered the ballpark and begun to photograph its historic markers, a fan approached me and asked leading questions about the history and location of the ballpark.   I confessed that since I had been in Clinton for only a couple of hours, all that I knew was on the plaque toward which I beckoned. 
From Omaha, Bill Messenger hadn’t known that there was a team in Clinton until he had seen a notice about the game while driving through town.  He smiled as he took in the charming, antiquated character of the ballpark.  In Omaha, he had lived fairly near old Rosenblatt Stadium where the minor league team had played until 2011, when the new fields opened for the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers—Werner Ballpark in nearby Sarpy County—while the NCAA World Series shifted sites in Omaha to the TD Ameritrade Park. 

Even upgraded in recent years, the Clinton ballpark features no luxury boxes—perhaps a reflection of the populist ethos of Iowa and the public funds used for the stadium’s construction and renovation. 
And unlike many ballparks where burgers, fries, and a brew might cost almost twenty dollars, reasonable concession prices prevail.  I could lunch on a hotdog and soda for less than $5.00, and other drinks and foods were priced about half what they had cost at most other A-level Minor League parks: taffy for a quarter, sunflower seeds for 75 cents, and cotton candy for two bucks.

Missing the historic character of Rosenblatt, Bill was delighted by the no-frills intimacy of Clinton’s riverfront stadium and the city’s century-old legacy of professional baseball.  Established as the Owls when the ballpark had opened during the Great Depression, Clinton’s league championship team that year eventually sent more than a half-dozen of its players to The Show, most to the parent Brooklyn Dodgers. More recently, Clinton’s baseball alumni include former Major League All-Stars Orel Hershiser and Steve Sax, as well as World Series managers Jim Leyland, Tom Kelly, and Mike Scioscia.   The only remaining charter member of the Midwest League founded in the mid-1950s, the team is now known as the LumberKings in recognition of Clinton’s former designation as the Lumber Capital of America.

Having scheduled my appearance at Alliant Energy Field, Mitch Butz greeted me as I entered the ballpark and told me that he wanted to convene a small caucus of Clinton’s anthem performers.  In preparation for my arrival, he had let David Wubenna from a nearby farm community in Illinois know about my project and scheduled appearance in Clinton since David had frequently sung the National Anthem for the LumberKings in recent years. 

More than 30 years ago, David first requested the chance to sing the national anthem for a local civic celebration, but when he auditioned, he was told that he needed to practice more.  So he did, rehearsing the anthem hundreds of times to improve his pitch, tone, and tempo.  Self-taught as a singer—in fact, he had been dismissed from the volunteer choir at his Baptist church about a decade earlier—David practiced again and again, often singing in the silo at his farm where the resonance was better than in a shower stall.  He persisted in his efforts and eventually got the chance to perform the anthem for a public event in 2003.   

Frequent LumberKings' anthem singer David Wubenna and his wife.
Now, he has performed the anthem on more than 40 occasions for Minor League games in several Midwest League ballparks, local volleyball games, the dedication ceremony for a high school gymnasium, city council meetings, and other civic gatherings.  In addition, he has gotten the chance to sing “O Canada,” which he learned by playing it on his cell phone, before a hockey game for the Rockford IceHogs, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Black Hawks.  Simply, David loves to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” proudly showing that almost anyone who persists in practicing not only can learn to sing it, but can learn to sing it for others.

On this blistering sunny Sunday, my rendition was among my best, with several of the LumberKings calling out as I passed the dugout: “Nice job.”  “Way to go.”  “You scored!”  “Thanks,” chimed in hitting coach Terry Pollreisz.  “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  And from the box seats behind the dugout, one woman yelled, “Great job.”  Intimate and friendly: that’s Clinton.

Clinton's quaint character displayed in its hand-printed welcome.
Umpire Mike Terry sips heat relief between innings. 
During the early innings of the game the bats of both teams seemed to wilt on the sun-seared field, neither team scoring off the starting pitchers.  Still I hoped that there might be some offensive energy derived from the seventh-inning stretch.  Yet when the public address announcer invited the fans “to take time now to stretch and sing America’s favorite song,” not even the crowd could rouse a motivating rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  While I understood how fans might consider the song a favorite, I thought that it should be belted out.  Even more, I wondered, shouldn’t “America’s favorite song” be the National Anthem?

Immediately following the recording of the organ accompaniment to the traditional seventh-inning refrain, the speakers blared a medley of other rollicking tunes, including “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”  Still, the crowd’s disposition seemed to be muted by the heat and humidity. Or perhaps its lackadaisical participation resulted from the absence of an impromptu choir of kids to lead the singing.  Or perhaps the crowd would have celebrated more if Louie, the LumberKings’ mascot who was a fan favorite throughout the League, had been at the ballpark that afternoon. 

In a rare retreat from front row box seats, fans seek the shade of the grandstands.

Not surprisingly, the feeble flexing in the mid seventh inning failed to enliven either team; and through all nine innings and then a tenth, the line scores for both teams read the same: no runs on five hits and two errors. Perhaps the 11th inning would prove luckier than the 7th, especially with new relievers anticipated for both teams.  With two outs and none on in the top of the inning, Peoria strung together three singles to take a one-zip lead.  Not to be out dramatized, with two outs and none on the bottom half, the LumberKings spliced a hit batter among their three consecutive singles, with two runners scoring on the game-winning hit by Carlos Ramirez. 

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